Classic wooden powerboats always turn heads on the water.

Vintage wooden motorboats have an enduring appeal, a buoyant blend of nostalgia for simpler times and admiration for sleek beauty. They add panache to any body of water, evoking an era before fiberglass cruisers, tricked-out pontoon boats, Jet Skis and parade-float inflatables.

Icons of grace and power, their inboard engines emit a pulse-raising rumble. Maybe it’s the kinship between wooden hulls and shoreline trees, or the way their glossy finish sparkles like the water itself, but the old boats seem closer to nature. And they always turn heads.

“Every time we put ours in the water, someone wants to buy it,” says Dudley Weber. He found the Betty Mae I, a 1948 Chris-Craft runabout, decaying behind a building he bought in Trussville.

His father, Bill Weber, now 85, spent more than a dozen years, on and off, restoring it. “At one point my wife said, ‘I sure will be glad when this affair with Betty Mae is over,’” he says. “I replaced the whole bottom and the top deck. It had a newer Chevy V-8. I took that out and put in a Hercules engine, a flathead four used in Army jeeps. After the war Chris-Craft bought a bunch of them and converted them into marine engines.”

The original 6-volt electrical system, with its cloth-sheathed wiring, gave way to a modern 12-volt one, with retro-style new gauges and electric ignition. “Other than that, I put it back as close to the original as I could,” Bill says. His painstaking work won a Best of Show award at the annual Lake Guntersville Antique and Classic Boat Show. As we watch Dudley launch the Betty
Mae I at Trident Marina on Smith Lake, a friend observes, “She gets prettier every year.”

“Just like me,” quips Bill.

The heyday of wooden motorboats began in the Roaring Twenties, when they set speed records and matched the rakish style of the time. It declined from the mid-60s on, as the market shifted from wood to fiberglass. While other historic boatbuilders such as Hacker, Gar Wood, Century, Riva and Lyman are also prized, Chris-Craft is the best known.

From the 1920s on, the Michigan-based company became the largest maker of mahogany powerboats. It thrived in part by taking manufacturing, marketing and design cues from Detroit’s carmakers.

It introduced a full line of new models every year, from small runabouts to large cruisers, launched with splashy ads and boat-show debuts. They were made with assembly-line production methods as well as skilled craftsmanship. And, especially after World War II, they echoed car-design elements such as instrumentation, steering wheels, upholstery and even tail fins.

Like any watercraft, vintage wooden boats require upkeep and, if not maintained, daunting sums to repair or restore them. “But you can get one for a fraction of the price of a new boat,” says
Steve Ambrose of Cutwater Marine Services in Alexander City. “I’d rather spend $30,000 on a classic wooden boat than $100,000 on a wakeboard boat. It may need some work. But there are ways of improving on the original design without detracting from it.”

Old wooden boats can be leaky, especially if they’ve been out of the water. “But even single-plank hulls are pretty watertight once the planks swell up in the water,” Ambrose says. “If the bilge pump’s coming on every so often, it’s probably got the original hull — but that’s what bilge pumps are for.”

The preferred fix is what’s called a 5200 bottom, using flexible 3M 5200 — both a sealant and an adhesive — to bind hull planking to underlying marine plywood, all secured with bronze screws. That’s what Weber did with the Betty Mae I and what Drew Edge hired Birmingham’s Sherwood Cox Woodworks to do to his 1949 Chris-Craft Sportsman. The 18-foot utility runabout received a major overhaul, aided by original drawings from the Chris-Craft archive at the Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, Virginia. Edge, who has a house on Lake Martin, will start enjoying it next summer — complete with a vintage wooden slalom ski.

Cox, who also builds wooden boats, notes that owners of old ones “often feel they’re stewards of them, restoring or maintaining the boats to pass on to the
next generation.”

Like valued antique cars or furniture, vintage wooden powerboats can appreciate over time. That’s true of the collection Birmingham physician Mark Clark keeps at his Lake Martin home. It includes two Rivas — the glamorous Italian marque favored by movie stars and magnates — a 26-foot 1961 Tritone twin-engine runabout and a 22-foot 1964 Ariston. Rivas have been called the
Ferraris of the boat world; Clark likens them to Stradivarius violins. He also owns a 1914 Fay & Bowen launch that Ambrose restored, a 1964 Chris-Craft Cavalier Cruiser and a faithful 2001 reproduction of a Canadian-made, 1931 Minett Shields 22-foot runabout.

“They’re mostly showboats — you don’t take them to Chimney Rock much,” he says. “Lake Martin is a fine place for them. It’s a big lake, and freshwater is better than saltwater for maintenance. If you take care of them and keep them out of the sun, these boats will last forever.”

And, notes their owner — who tells friends he’s “saving up for a fiberglass boat” — wooden boats more than hold their value.

Like Clark, Jeff Baggett owns both old and newer wooden boats, which are stored at his property on Smith Lake. One is a 1965 Chris-Craft Super Sport in original condition, with a 327 Corvette engine. The other is a 30-foot, triple-cockpit Hacker-Craft, built in 1999 from a 1937 design by powerboat pioneer John Hacker. Located on New York’s Lake George, the Hacker Boat Company (founded in 1908) is the world’s largest builder of classic mahogany motorboats.

“You can’t call it a reproduction because they never stopped making them,” Baggett says. “Nick Saban owns the same boat, except the upholstery is crimson.” This blast from the past combines classic streamline style with modern construction and technology — the best of boat worlds.

“I love fast stuff,” declares Baggett. Having restored and raced cars, he relishes the tradition of craftsmanship and performance that vintage powerboats embody. At the Trident Marina dock, onlookers are admiring Bill Weber’s Chris-Craft. Sure enough, someone asks if he’d sell it, and at what price. Weber pauses, thinking of the countless hours he put into restoring Betty Mae, perhaps imagining his young great-grandsons one day taking the helm.

“I can’t arrive at that figure,” he replies.

– Jeff Book

Categories: Blog

Recent Articles